Blat (Russia)

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Blat (Russia)
Location: Russia and former Soviet Union
Russia map.png
Author: Alena Ledeneva
Affiliation: Research Centre for East European Studies
Website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ssees/people/alena-ledeneva


Original text by Alena Ledeneva

In Russia, blat is a colloquial term to denote ways of getting things done through personal contacts, associated with using connections, pulling strings and exchanging favours. Just like other economies of favours –guanxi, jeitinho, kombinacja, pituto, vruzki, wasta and torpil, presented in this volume – blat practices are associated with sociability, i.e. the use of personal contacts or networks, but also serve an instrumental purpose of gaining influence or accessing limited resources. The blurred lines between sociability and instrumentality – the two sides of the coin in an exchange of favours – highlight the ambivalence of ‘favour’. In each particular case, the puzzle of distinguishing friendship from the use of friendship (blat) can be solved on the basis of frequency or context: people who regularly draw on exchanges of this kind are seen as brokers (blatmeisters) rather than friends. More generally, drawing a line between the relationship and the use of relationship is indeed difficult. The complexity stems from the fluid nature of relationships – regime of affection, regime of status, or regime of equivalence; the elusive nature of favours, as well as the wider set of political, economic and cultural constraints (Ledeneva 1998[1]: 144-55; Ledeneva 2015[2]). In the Soviet Union blat contacts were commonly used to obtain goods and services in short supply or to circumvent formal procedures. A school friend working in a food store saved the best cuts of meat for you; an acquaintance at the Bolshoy Theatre box office whose daughter you had helped to enter university put aside tickets for your parents. The term referred to routine, mostly non-monetary, give-and-take practices, often associated with mutual help, mutual understanding or cooperation of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ The term itself originated in criminal jargon – perhaps in emphasising the conflict between insiders of the underworld (blatnye), and the authorities, legal order or political regime – and has carried negative connotations ever since. One can trace it in the satirical periodical Krokodil in the 1920s and 1930s (1931, 27: 10). In Russian language dictionaries, entries on blat also appeared in the 1930s. The word acquired a ‘new common vulgar’ usage in early Soviet times (Ushakov 1935[3]), but its meaning – ‘illicitly, by protection, by patronage’ – is registered much later (Dictionary of Russian Literary Language 1950: Vol.2). The idiom ‘po blatu’ (‘through acquaintances’) was colloquially widely used but banned from official discourse. It certainly does not feature in any of the editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. As Joseph Berliner, the pioneer of the Harvard Interviewing Project, observed: ‘If we were totally reliant on the written sources of the Soviet society, we might hardly have guessed the importance of ‘blat’ (Berliner 1957: 184[4]).


In the Soviet vernacular, the term embraced 1) vertical, or hierarchical, patterns such as protection and patronage; 2) horizontal, or reciprocal, deals of the ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ type; 3) go-between practices (asking on behalf of someone rather than for oneself) and self-serving brokerage; 4) exchange of favours and access to resources associated with friendship and other binding relationships; 5) patterns of sociability such as mutual help, mutual understanding and exchange of information ( Ledeneva 1998[5]). By the 1980s, blat favours became so ubiquitous that it was difficult for people to separate friendship from the use of friendship: friends were meant to help out.


Three features of the Soviet system can account for the pervasive nature of blat. Firstly, central planning and the resultant economy of shortage made favours of access to food, goods or services essential for personal consumption. Double standards emerged: although the routine re-distribution of resources through personal channels was not illegal, it was not fully legitimate either, leaving it to circumstantial factors (the need, purpose and scale) to define the legitimacy of each particular transaction. Blat favours were regulated by conformity within informal networks and by a broader consensus on what should be tolerated in view of consumerism. Secondly, the monopoly of state property, whereby everything and nothing belonged to everyone, ensured that the blurred boundaries between the public and private were routinely crossed. Every gatekeeper with a discretionary power made a decision in favour of ‘us’, and thus redefined the public-private boundary into the more negotiable dichotomy of ‘us vs them’. Thirdly, the centralised, future-oriented and closed nature of the economy enhanced the ‘us and them’ mentality at all levels, normalised the double standards, and enabled the so-called ‘misrecognition game,’ whereby a blat transaction was viewed as friendship by its insiders, but as blat (re-channelling of public resources into a private network) by outsiders. Such ambivalence in perception was essential for sustaining an altruistic self-image while engaging in self-serving economy of favours.


Blat practices were intrinsically ambivalent in their functions: they both served the regime and the people, while simultaneously undermining the regime and corrupting the people. In authoritarian regimes, the outcome of such ambivalence is ‘corruption with a human face’ – the underside that lubricated the rigidity of political and economic constraints. As people used to say, ‘the severity of our laws is compensated for by their non-observance.’ Soviet blat effectively became the reverse side of the over-controlling centre, thus enabling both people and the regime to survive under formally pronounced but ultimately impractical rules. It was an indispensable set of practices that enabled the Soviet system to function, made it tolerable, yet also subverted it. The Soviet system was best encapsulated by an anecdote on the ‘six paradoxes of socialism’: ‘No unemployment but nobody works. Nobody works but productivity increases. Productivity increases but shops are empty. Shops are empty but fridges are full. Fridges are full but nobody is satisfied. Nobody is satisfied but all vote unanimously.’ Practices of absenteeism, misreporting, accessing goods in short supply, unofficial re-distribution of official privileges, and widespread cynicism, were the open secrets of socialism, commonly known but officially unacknowledged and rarely registered in written sources inside the country. They eventually led to the seventh paradox of the Soviet system: ‘All voted unanimously but the system has collapsed anyway!’


It is only since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that people have been able to reflect on such practices (just as in the 1950s, those who left the Soviet Union were able to describe their blat experience in the Harvard Interviewing Project (Fitzpatrick 2000[6])). Blat developed together with the regime and reflected its changes. At first it addressed basic necessities such as food, jobs, and living space, helping kulaks to escape exile or making it possible for Bolsheviks to christen their babies despite the party ban on religious rituals. Then came the more sophisticated needs of late socialism associated with education, mobility, consumerism and self-expression. But although there may seem to be a parallel between the way contacts were used for competitive advantage in Bolshevik Russia (for example, in order to conceal class origins given the constraints of the Bolshevik demand for a proletarian background), and in post-Soviet Russia (where contacts could allow one to be ‘appointed’ a millionaire), the nature of the regime and how it shapes human behaviour must be taken into consideration.


The post-Soviet reforms have undermined three basic parameters of the Soviet system that constituted blat. First, functioning markets for goods and capital have replaced the economy of shortages in which everything, whether foodstuffs, goods, services, or places in hospitals and cemeteries was bartered in the economy of favours. Second, state property was increasingly privatised, putting a price tag on the ‘favour of access.’ Third, the sense of security and long-term horizon associated with socialism – ‘everything was forever’ – ceased to exist, thus making the misrecognition of the instrumental side of sociability more difficult. The cumulative outcome of all these changes was that a new shortage emerged in post-socialist Russia – money – and the blat know-how had to adjust to it. Not only have networks reoriented themselves to serve this new type of shortage (to make money, to safeguard, to invest, and to export), the use of contacts has become monetised in the sense that money is not excluded from personalised transactions. The monetisation of favours is particularly pronounced in the private sector that emerged in post-Soviet Russia and significantly transformed the ‘non-monetary’ feel of the good old Soviet blat. Although the expression ‘by blat’ is still known and understood in present-day Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union, the assumption of continuity of blat practices is misleading.


Yet it is also misleading to assume a complete change. It was believed that once the centralised system ceased to exist, there would not be a need for alternative currencies or an extensive use of informal networks. Markets would take care of functions that used to be performed by informal networks. However, research shows that not only does the use of networks not diminish—it actually increases, especially in newly emerging sectors (Miller et al., 2001[7]; Rose, 2001[8]). The legacy of socialism is often blamed, and the Soviet grip is indeed part of the story. But one must not dismiss the functionality of informal practices for political regimes and their effectiveness for individual problem-solving. In transitional economies, the defects of markets are compensated for by informal networks; low levels of impersonal trust in state institutions shifts the emphasis onto interpersonal trust. The reasons for the emergence of informal practices (survival, shortage, cornered behaviour) may not be the same as the reasons for their reproduction (vested interests, proactive manipulation). Both need to be considered to account for the fundamental changes in the use of networks in the post-Soviet period in Russia and for the purposes of comparison.


Further reading

Park, H. 2016. 'The Importance of Blats in Soviet Everyday Life', Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities, 18 October, https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/rees-577-fall2016/2016/10/18/the-importance-of-blats-in-soviet-everyday-life

Notes

  1. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia's Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking, and Informal Exchange. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
  2. Ledeneva, A. 2015. ‘The Ambivalence of Favour: Paradoxes of Russia’s Economy of Favours’ in Henig, D. and Makovicky, N. (eds), Economies of Favour after Socialism, Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
  3. Ushakov, D. N.(ed.) 1935. Tolkovyi Slovar’ russkogo yazyka. Moscow. Miller
  4. Berliner, J. 1957. Factory and Manager in the USSR. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia's Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking, and Informal Exchange. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
  6. Fitzpatrick, S. 2000. ‘Blat in Stalin’s Time’, in Lovell, S., Ledeneva, A. and Rogatchevskii, A. (eds), Bribery and Blat in Russia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 166-182.
  7. Miller, W. L., Grodeland, A. B. and Koshechkina, T. 2001. A Culture of Corruption. Budapest: Central European University.
  8. Rose, R. 2001. ‘Getting Things Done in an Anti-Modern Society: Social Capital Networks in Russia,’ in Dasgupta, P. and Serageldin (eds), Social Capital: A Multifaceted Perspective. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Comments

The author welcomes all constructive questions and comments.

[[[Category:Help]]